As the world seems to wake-up to new challenges on a daily basis – from devastating wildfires in Australia, to the unpredictable global spread of a new coronavirus – it may be human to feel a sense of hopelessness. With a world in flux, the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum serves as an important platform to gather thought leaders together, in the hope of surfacing new solutions in this crucial Decade of Action for our planet.
Many participants correctly advocated the need to immediately ramp up international climate action and financing, both as a result of the growing price of inaction, but also because investing in low-carbon economies, markets and technologies makes ever greater financial sense. But there was another notable shift this year at Davos, exemplified by the meeting between Greta Thunberg and Jane Goodall. It symbolized a convergence of two of the world’s greatest challenges – that is, climate action and the protection of our natural world will no longer be tackled as separate issues.
To address these complex challenges, much of the discussions focused on the immediate need to remodel our entire economic system, with climate action serving as the locomotive for this positive economic transformation: a new era in which capital and economic growth will not be the single determinant of what happens in society.
A crucial element of that transformation has already gained an irreversible foothold – the private sector is increasingly embracing the concept of sustainability. Leading companies are radically reshaping their role, offering a new generation of products and solutions. Consumers too are demanding products that are recycled, refurbished and rented. Businesses can now rent recyclable carpet and lighting rather than buy throwaway products. The new economy will be built on durability and quality as opposed to consumption and obsolescence.
But while there is a growing recognition that the transition to the green economy is unstoppable, the question of how the entire transformation will happen remains.
Gone thankfully are the days of the all-too-smart “silver bullet” solutions that often prove to be distracting – and sometimes dangerous. Instead, I saw far more nuanced solutions responsive to the true complexity of the world in which we live. Yesterday’s food security projects, for instance, have morphed into “food system thinking” that address food supply, rural livelihoods, health and carbon sequestration.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is reshaping industries and value chains, scientific discovery and national economic power at an unprecedented speed and scale. The opportunity for new technologies to tackle major global challenges is immense but much of the success is about foreseeing what comes next rather than taking advantage of opportunities.
However, as the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2019 Human Development Report highlights, it is not all rosy. Inequality, as a consequence of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence, could leave behind entire groups of people, even countries.
Therefore, it is crucial that we have a plan. In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have a ready-made “risk-map” for solutions to challenges like the growth of a new generation of inequalities – and other critical areas, including climate change and the loss of nature. The SDGs are also inspiring others – just as they were intended to do. For instance, the Frontier 2030 project, launched at Davos, will bring tech companies, government, civil society and international organizations together to unlock barriers to the deployment of new technologies to deliver positive impact for communities across the world.
The UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the SDGs also highlights the need for more systematic international cooperation to harness the massive potential of the digital revolution in fintech to accelerate SDG financing. If we do so, we can mould a fairer world, using fintech to expand financial inclusion; mobilize domestic savings into long-term sustainable investment; and enhance government revenue, by making it harder to evade taxes.
The finance sector has begun to realize that sustainability is not in conflict with economic benefits or shareholder return. Rather, it is becoming a co-defining element. It is now crucial to leverage the asset base of institutional investors to transition and make their trillions available for the new economy.
The United Nations, too, is advancing a range of non-traditional alliances that leverage technology, advertising and communication sectors to accelerate climate action and protect our natural capital as this “super year” for nature gets underway. For instance, UNDP’s The Lion’s Share initiative has created a platform for wildlife conservation where companies contribute 0.5% of their advertising spend each time an animal appears in their adverts. We aim to raise $100 million a year within four years.
Or The Other Bar – the world’s first ever blockchain chocolate bar which is produced in Ecuador and powered by UNDP, the FairChain Foundation and the Alternative Finance Lab. In each pack, there is a blockchain token. It gives consumers a choice – to get a discount for their next purchase, sending more business to the farmer; or donating the token to help a farmer to buy a cocoa tree to grow more and earn more. That same tree will absorb and store carbon dioxide, helping to tackle climate change.
Rather than feeling hopeless in this unpredictable world, be inspired by innovations like The Other Bar. It is a perfect example of the world working together to achieve sustainable development. It is an attainable world that is fair and just, that capitalizes on the digital age we live in, that protects the planet, and works to ensure that no-one gets left behind, just as the SDGs demand of us all – if we can avoid the social and ecological disruption emerging all around us.